GDPR vs CCPA: A thorough breakdown of data protection laws

Wondering about the differences between GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) and CCPA (California Consumer Privacy Act)? You’re not alone. Grasping the similarities and differences between these two compliance standards is critical for any business handling personal data, as compliance is not a one-size-fits-all solution.

In this blog post, we’ll provide a comprehensive and strategic comparison of how GDPR and CCPA define personal data, enforce user rights, and stipulate compliance, helping you identify key actions for your data governance strategy. Step into this guide to succinctly discern the implications for your organization amid the GDPR vs CCPA debate.

Key takeaways

  • GDPR emphasizes stringent ‘privacy by default’ for anyone dealing with EU residents’ data, applying globally regardless of the entity’s location, while CCPA focuses on California-based consumers’ and households’ data transparency and control.
  • Both GDPR and CCPA broadly define personal data/information but differ in scope; GDPR covers all data linked to an identifiable person, while CCPA is specific to consumer, device, or household information in California.
  • GDPR and CCPA enforce strict compliance measures with substantial penalties for non-compliance, signifying the gravity with which each regards personal data protection, up to €20 million or 4% of annual global turnover for GDPR and up to $7,500 per violation under CCPA.

Common ground: The goals and scope of GDPR and CCPA

At their core, both the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) are committed to bolstering individuals’ data privacy. 

However, they also present unique characteristics: 

  • GDPR is a comprehensive approach adopted by the European Union, which applies ‘privacy by default’ principles to all personal data processed within its scope—this includes those residing inside as well as outside EU boundaries. (Learn more about GDPR countries here)
  • On the other hand, CCPA stands as California’s shield aimed at enhancing transparency and empowering users specifically related to the personal information of residents in that state while excluding non-commercial activities. CCPA is sometimes referred to as “GDPR lite.”

Grasping how CCPA vs GDPR aligns and diverges is key for entities aiming to maintain adherence to these regulations.

Though their reach may vary, both GDPR and CCPA share an underlying objective: To significantly raise standards around user privacy protections. These frameworks compel organizations not just to secure personal data, but also affirmatively respect people’s rights.

GDPR versus CCPA at-a-glance


Became effective: May 25, 2018

Protects: Any data subject in the EU (or other GDPR countries)

Targets: Data controllers. All businesses and their entities (website and mobile application) that personally process data of people in the European Union(EU), including not-for-profits and e-commerce are considered to be a data controller.

User rights (high level):

  • Right of access 
  • Right to rectification 
  • Right to erasure (aka right to be forgotten) 
  • Right to restrict processing 
  • Right to data portability 
  • Right to object 
  • Rights related to automated decision-making and profiling

Cookie opt-in/opt-out:

  • Requires explicit consent (opt-in) from users 
  • Users also have the right to refuse consent (opt-out) and withdraw their consent at any time

Possible fines: The penalty for non-compliance with the GDPR may be up to either:

  • 2% of global annual turnover or €10 million, whichever is higher; or
  • 4% of global annual turnover or €20 million, whichever is higher

Required oversight: Requires the hiring of a Data Protection Officer (DPO) to oversee compliance and act as a liaison for audit purposes.

Enforced by: EU Commission and Member State(s)

Flags of GDPR countries in the European Union on display
Recommended reading
The role of a Data Protection Officer: A complete guide

Understand the role of a DPO and the benefits they bring to your organization

The role of a Data Protection Officer in GDPR compliance—a complete guide icon-arrow-long


Became effective: Jan 1, 2020

Protects: Consumers who are residents of the California region

Targets: Businesses operating in California that also:

  • Collect consumers’ personal information, directly or indirectly, and determine the purposes and means of processing that information.
  • Meet one or more of the following criteria:
    • Have an annual gross revenue of over $25 million.
    • Buy, receive, or sell the personal information of 50,000 or more consumers, households, or devices annually.
    • Derive 50% or more of their annual revenue from selling consumers’ personal information.

User rights (high level):

  • Right to know
  • Right to opt-out
  • Right to deletion
  • Right to non-discrimination.

Cookie opt-in/opt-out:

  • Does not mandate explicit consent (opt-in) for setting cookies
  • Businesses must provide consumers with the right to opt out of the sale of their personal information, including data collected through cookies

Possible fines: Fines range from $2500 per unintentional violation to $7500 per intentional violation with no maximum penalty outlined by the law.

Required oversight: CCPA has no equivalent requirement for oversight

Enforced by: California Attorney General 

Let’s look at the key differences in greater detail.

Defining personal data and information under GDPR and CCPA

The GDPR and the CCPA both aim to protect personal privacy but adopt different scopes when it comes to what constitutes personal data and information. The GDPR broadly includes various types of data within its protective scope, while the CCPA specifically targets information pertinent to consumers, devices, and households in a narrower fashion.

Personal data under GDPR

Under the GDPR, personal data encompasses any information that can identify or be associated with a natural person who is either identified or identifiable. 

This expansive interpretation includes not only conventional identifiers like names and IP addresses but also captures information from wearable technologies and locational details—thereby sweeping an extensive array of informational content into its regulatory orbit. 

The notion of personal data incorporates sensitive elements concerning multiple facets of individual identity, such as:

  • Name
  • Identification number
  • Location data
  • Online identifier (e.g., IP address)
  • Physical, physiological, genetic, mental, economic, cultural, or social identity factors.
  • Online identifiers, such as IP addresses, cookie identifiers, and device IDs, as personal data if they can be used to identify a person directly or indirectly.

The broad characterization at the heart of GDPR’s strategy provides a foundational architecture designed to acknowledge the complex dimensions through which identity is reflected and address the diverse processes by which personal data may be handled and put at risk.

Personal Information under CCPA

Under the CCPA, personal information extends beyond mere data points. It encompasses details that characterize a particular consumer, their device, or household. The legislation defines this type of information in broad terms but with precision, encompassing any data that:

  • Identifies
  • Is related to
  • Describes,
  • Or could be linked directly or indirectly to a specific consumer or household.

This definition serves as an expansive definition of what constitutes personal information.

Reflective of its purpose to safeguard consumers within and outside individual contexts, the CCPA targets protection at both singular levels and across wider living situations involving interactions with various devices. It casts a wide net over several types of data—from biometric particulars to internet search histories—effectively enveloping the routine online activities engaged by California residents within its sphere of safety.

Entities affected: Data controllers vs businesses

Within the landscape of data protection regulations, entities have unique roles: Companies are subject to the CCPA, and data controllers operate under GDPR guidelines. Each operates with different sets of instructions and complies with various requirements dictated by their governing laws.

Data controllers under GDPR

Under the GDPR, entities known as data controllers hold authority over collecting and processing personal data belonging to EU residents. These can be organizations of different kinds—including businesses and public authorities—that shape how personal data is processed. The responsibility they shoulder includes guaranteeing that all handling of personal information adheres to the stringent regulations set out by the GDPR from its initial collection through to final processing.

Not only must these data controllers comply with regulations themselves, but they are also responsible for ensuring their appointed data processors operate within the parameters of GDPR compliance. This dual level of accountability reflects the regulation’s broad strategy in protecting individuals’ personal information, advocating a cooperative model where every party involved shares a commitment to uphold privacy standards.

Businesses under CCPA

The California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) applies to for-profit entities operating within the state that meet certain thresholds. To fall under its jurisdiction, a business must either:

  • Exceed an annual gross revenue of $25 million
  • Process personal information from 100,000 or more California residents or households
  • Generate at least half of their yearly revenue by selling the personal information of Californian residents

Businesses meeting any one of these criteria are required to comply with CCPA mandates.

Through this strategic targeting, the CCPA ensures accountability among those enterprises that have significant influence over consumer privacy and pushes them toward adopting data handling practices that are both transparent and respectful of consumers’ private information.

User rights granted by GDPR and CCPA

While there is an overlap in certain respects between both the CCPA and GDPR regarding user rights, both directives have exclusive provisions that align with their respective objectives for safeguarding privacy.

Common rights in GDPR and CCPA

The rights to be informed and data portability are shared passports in the GDPR and CCPA world, allowing individuals to travel through the data landscape with insight and agency. 

These common rights empower users to not only receive information about the processing of their personal data, but also to transfer it from one service provider to another, promoting a fluid data ecosystem that respects user autonomy.

Alongside these rights, both regulations mandate that organizations provide timely responses to user requests, ensuring that the dialogue between data subjects and entities is both efficient and constructive.

Distinct rights in GDPR and CCPA

Although the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) share some similarities, each regulation provides unique rights that mirror their separate goals. 

The GDPR’s provision to challenge automated decision-making and profiling underscores the European Union’s dedication to creating digital environments with a human focus. In contrast, the CCPA offers individuals the right to opt out of both selling and sharing their personal information, which marks an era of increased consumer power in how personal data is commercially utilized.

These specific rights illustrate each law’s underlying philosophy toward protecting user privacy, from GDPR’s defense mechanisms against algorithmic control to CCPA’s protections designed as a defense against unwarranted trading of personal data. They capture what lies at the core of each framework—respecting individual autonomy over one’s own information in relation to data protection practices.

The foundations of GDPR and CCPA are robustly established in the realm of data processing and consent, but they diverge in their respective approaches. The GDPR mandates unequivocal prior consent before any data processing can take place, whereas the CCPA advocates for an opt-out approach, granting individuals the liberty to withdraw from specific uses of their data.

The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) mandates that consent is an essential condition for legal data processing, and it cannot be treated as a mere formality. It’s imperative that organizations obtain explicit consent, ensuring the individual consciously engages in granting permission. Consent must adhere to several strict criteria.

  • Given voluntarily
  • Clearly defined
  • Based on full knowledge
  • Unmistakable

Users should navigate through this process with language that is both accessible and straightforward.

To obtain user consent, the GDPR delineates six lawful grounds under which personal data may be processed. This creates a comprehensive framework wherein personal data handling can occur within legal boundaries if it strictly complies with the demanding provisions of the regulation.

CCPA: Opt-out options and default data processing

Unlike the GDPR, which requires prior consent, the CCPA permits the default handling of personal information but ensures that consumers have access to options for opting out. This reflects a strive to balance facilitating business activities with protecting consumer rights by granting California residents the autonomy to withdraw from data collection as they desire.

Under CCPA regulations, explicit permission is not necessary to store cookies. A straightforward mechanism for users to opt-out must be in place. This showcases a sophisticated stance on data processing that considers both consumer interests and business necessities.

Enforcement and penalties

Both the GDPR and the CCPA are equipped with their own arsenal of punitive measures designed to thwart non-compliance and uphold individuals’ data rights. The GDPR threatens tougher consequences, including higher fines for breaches, while the penalties associated with the CCPA also underscore the necessity of complying with its requirements.

GDPR: National data protection authorities and fines

The responsibility for implementing the GDPR’s rules lies with national data protection authorities throughout the EU. These regulators carry the authority to ensure compliance and have at their disposal formidable punitive measures that can significantly impact even well-established companies, imposing fines up to €20 million or 4% of a firm’s annual global turnover, depending on which amount is higher.

Such severe penalties underscore a stern warning to companies across the globe: Take data protection seriously. The scale of potential sanctions under the GDPR underscores how committed the EU is to maintaining premier privacy protections for its Citizens.

CCPA: California attorney general and penalties

The California Privacy Protection Agency is empowered by the CCPA to enforce the state’s data protection laws, demonstrating a rigorous commitment to safeguarding consumer data rights. Companies that fail to comply with these regulations may be subject to fines as high as $7,500 for each deliberate infraction.

The CCPA enables consumers directly affected by violations of data protection rules not only to rely on the California Privacy Protection Agency but also to pursue legal action themselves. This mechanism ensures individuals can vindicate their data rights and demand accountability from corporations mishandling their information.

Preparing for compliance: Best practices and solutions

Navigating the complexity of data protection rules demands strategic planning and actionable measures. Adopting best practices, including Privacy by Design and utilizing compliance management tools, can act as navigational aids to steer companies through the intricacies of GDPR and CCPA compliance with assurance.

When organizations embrace these best practices and implement solutions, they are positioned to:

  • Fulfill legal mandates
  • Improve their public image
  • Build trust among consumers
  • Possibly achieve a market advantage

Thus, achieving compliance transcends mere adherence to a legal requirement. It becomes an intelligent investment in the longevity and success of a company’s future.

Your path to GDPR and CCPA compliance with Thoropass

Okay, that may have been a scary read. If we’ve got your attention, let us now offer some reassurance. 

Chat with our compliance experts: A free 15-minute AMA 

Let’s chat. Connect with a compliance expert to find out how GDPR and/or CCPA applies to your business — no strings attached. Book a chat here.

Our 5-step approach makes GDPR  or CCPA/CPRA a cinch (okay, not quite a cinch, but as easy as it can get!)

  • STEP 1: Kick-off. After a deep dive into data privacy, our experts walk you through your compliance roadmap
  • STEP 2: Onboarding. Get up and running with policy templates, automated vendor discovery, and clear action items
  • STEP 3: Implementation. Efficiently implement and operationalize GDPR or CCPA/CPRA with guided workflows, automation, and support from our experts
  • STEP 4: GDPR assessment (or self-assessment) and reporting. As a third party, Thoropass delivers a transparent full assessment and report to share with customers and prospects
  • STEP 5: And beyond… Leverage our extensive GDPR compliance automation platform to add frameworks, renew attestation, and ensure continuous compliance

Learn more here!

More FAQs

GDPR is applicable to any entity involved in processing personal data of residents from the EU, whereas CCPA emphasizes granting transparency and control over personal information specifically for those residing in California, targeting businesses that function within the state.

Organizations handling personal data of residents from the EU are required to adhere to GDPR standards, and profit-oriented companies in California that either exceed $25 million in yearly revenue or deal with the personal information of more than 100,000 individuals residing in California must conform to CCPA regulations.

No, the GDPR and CCPA do not share identical definitions for personal data and information. The GDPR articulates that it encompasses any information pertaining to an identified or identifiable natural person. On the other hand, under the CCPA, personal data is described as information that can be associated with a particular consumer, device, or household.

Organizations that fail to adhere to GDPR regulations may face penalties as steep as €20 million or 4% of their annual global turnover. Similarly, under the CCPA, intentional violations can incur fines of up to $7,500 for each instance. Consumers have the right to seek statutory damages.

Ensuring compliance with these regulatory standards is imperative for organizations in order to prevent significant monetary sanctions.

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